Category: Visual Art

Jan 18 2015

“Free Us All:” Love in Action in Chicago

It was Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday on Thursday and Chicago was in the mood to celebrate through study, action and protest. As part of an effort to #ReclaimMLK, Chicagoans demanded reparations for police torture survivors, gathered to discuss the radical roots of the Black Freedom Movement, called out a list of the system’s crimes against those most marginalized and finally marched by the hundreds in solidarity with a youth-led protest on the near Westside of Chicago.

Listen to these words offered by Kaleb Autman, a 12 year old student at Village Leadership Academy & co-organizer of the ReclaimMLK march and by Page May, a young organizer with We Charge Genocide who helped VLA students bring their vision to fruition. Listen to their words to better understand the current rebellions led mostly by young people of color taking place across the country.

I was invited to speak at Thursday’s rally and march. I had jotted down a few words but when it came time for me to speak I decided to focus on what was in front of me rather than on what I had planned to share. You see, by the time I was called to speak, we were in front of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (Chicago’s youth jail) and I could hear the children who were locked in cells insistently pounding on their windows.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/14)

Their message to us on the outside was urgent and unequivocal: “Free Us.”

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez  (1/15/15)

photo by Silvia Ines Gonzalez (1/15/15)

I turned and looked to my right. I saw my friends of the Chicago Light Brigade holding light boards spelling out “Free Us All” as they projected the words “Indict the System” on the side of the courthouse. I struggled to hold back tears.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

It was the vision of a group of Black elementary school students that we march 2.5 miles from their school to the juvenile jail to underscore how close they are to being funneled through the pipeline to prison. My friend Kelly Hayes, who helped organize the march, wrote beautifully about the proximity of incarceration for these students:

VLA student Jakya Hobbs told us, “It is this system that keeps us from the world.” Her use of the word “us” was very intentional in this context. These student organizers see no distinction between themselves and the incarcerated, and rightly believe that as long as black and brown children are criminalized and caged, no young person is truly free. In elementary school, they understand what it took me decades to comprehend: Prisons don’t simply confine prisoners. They confine hopes and ambitions, and dampen the faith of those who might otherwise dare to believe in better things. Living as a black or brown person in a country where the prison industrial complex cages over two million of our brothers and sisters means walking through the world with the knowledge that, while you may have eluded the slave catcher, many of your people will not.

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Over 600 people braved the Chicago cold to march alongside the young organizers of the protest. I was so proud to live in this city as people of all ages, genders, class backgrounds and races responded to their call to action. I felt hopeful.

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

photo by Osei David Andrews-Hutchinson‎ (1/15/15)

One of the children in the jail scrawled out the words “I <3 You” on his window. It read crystal clear to those of us standing outside of the jail. People responded by calling out and signing their love in kind.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (1/15/15)

Thursday’s #ReclaimMLK march was a manifestation of love in action. It’s that simple and that complex. If these uprisings and rebellions are to develop into a movement, love will have to be centered alongside power. This is a truth gleaned from past movements and leaders:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Source: pp. 324-325 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson (1998).

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

Photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

In the end though, I will remember three words from this action: “Free Us All.”

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

photo by Bob Simpson (1/15/15)

These words will ring out as we continue to struggle and fight for a more just and peaceful world. “Free Us All” is our North Star helping us to find our way in our journey toward liberation.

Dec 30 2014

“The Princess Who Went Quiet:” A Fable

For the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with and to get to know a talented young Chicago artist named Bianca Diaz. Bianca spent a summer (a couple of years ago) as an intern with my organization and has stayed on as a volunteer since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have watched Bianca learn about the ravages of the prison industrial complex along with the possibilities for transformative justice. She has listened attentively to the stories of people who been incarcerated and their families. She has used her artistic talents to further the struggle for justice and to promote an end of prisons.

Bianca is currently studying art in Ireland. While there, she completed a beautiful children’s book titled “The Princess Who Went Quiet.” It’s a story informed by Bianca’s thinking about incarceration and peace. Hard copies of the book will be distributed to children who have a loved one incarcerated at Cook County Jail through a grant by 96 Acres.

Bianca has generously made the story available to others who want to read it by posting it online too. Here in her own words Bianca shares her inspiration:

“I’m happy to share that my comic is now online for your reading and downloading pleasure! Please feel free to print and share this with anyone.
This comic was inspired by the stories that many people have shared with me about how incarceration has impacted their own lives, the lives of their family members, and the life of their communities. Thank you so much for letting me listen.”

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Below is Bianca’s description of the story. I could not be more proud and blessed to know and work with such an incredibly kind, creative and talented person as Bianca. Stay tuned for an upcoming collaboration between us in the new year!

“There once lived a storytelling princess who was loved by her entire kingdom. When the princess was stolen away by a dragon everyone searched desperately for her, but they never found her. Alone in the belly of the dragon and with no one to tell stories to, the princess fell into a deep sleep.

In the kingdom of her dreams, the princess rules with fairness and love. She introduces peace circles to help her community find peace together. Having heard of the princess’s many great deeds and her ability to grow peace, King Capybara seeks her help when the capybara way of life is threatened, and capybara are disappearing. The princess travels to a far away land with the capybara and discovers what is making them disappear.

To save them, she must re-learn how to use her voice and speak. To save herself, she must open her eyes, and unite her dream world with her waking reality.”

Dec 23 2014

Video – Groundswell’s Brooklyn Mural Project: The Prison Industrial Complex

THIRTEEN documented one Groundswell mural from conception to execution — a piece entitled “P.I.C.T.U.R.E.S Prison Industrial Complex: Tyranny Undermining Rights, Education, and Society” in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, that addresses the causes and effects of incarceration.

Since 1996, Groundswell has brought together artists, educators, activists and youth to create collaborative public artwork across New York City. Every mural has a central theme — meant to give expression to underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and to better the lives of both neighbors and artists alike.

Dec 08 2014

Video: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Stop & Frisk’

This is a must listen to…

Nov 21 2014

Video: The Truth About Police by Molly Crabapple

I really appreciate this video about police violence by artist Molly Crabapple. It opens with these words: “On August 9th, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot a black teenager named Mike Brown. Since then, the city has been protesting. The police did not react well.”

Nov 09 2014

Image of the Day: Dominique Franklin

art by Molly Crabapple

art by Molly Crabapple

Oct 14 2014

Guest Post: #Ferguson Reflections by Sarah Jane Rhee (words & photos)

A number of Chicagoans responded to the call to come to St. Louis and Ferguson for a weekend of resistance as part of Ferguson October. I attended a march in St. Louis on Saturday and several other friends from Chicago spent all or part of their weekends in Ferguson. I am still sorting out my thoughts and feelings but I asked some friends to share theirs if they were willing. This week, I will post the responses that I receive. Today, my friend Sarah reflects on her experience through words and her photos.

It’s Sunday morning, 8am, and my daughter Cadence and our friends Pidgeon and Mika are slowly waking up in our hotel room in St. Louis. I decide to use this time before we check out to edit my photos from the night before taken at the vigil at Mike Brown’s memorial and the subsequent protest at the Ferguson police station. While I wait for the photos to download onto my laptop, I read Mariame’s post from Friday, and see this video of Ethan, a young person I care very much about, and my heart cracks as I recall the events of the previous night when I watched him unleash his anger and pain in the faces of the Ferguson police officers lined up in front of the protesters. I then return to my downloaded photos, and the very first one I see is that of Mike Brown’s mother and family leading the march after the vigil to the police station, and that’s when my already cracked heart breaks wide open and I start weeping.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

The night before at the Ferguson PD protest, I witnessed several young men from Chicago whom I care about very much passionately and furiously express their anger and pain at the police officers who were lined up in front of them a few feet away, separated from them only by a thin yellow police tape that poorly represented the chasm between these two groups.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

As I watched, I was worried for their safety because I knew these officers could care less about the lives of these young Black men, that they may as well all be Mike Brown or nameless. I also recognized these young people’s need for an outlet for the feelings of anguish and rage that I don’t have adequate words with which to describe them.

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

photo by Sarah Jane Rhee (Ferguson, 10/11/14)

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Sep 13 2014

Video: Sesame Street Addresses Impact of Incarceration

Sep 12 2014

Image of the Day: Prisons Break Apart Families

The following is an image made by Meredith Stern which is available for purchase at Just Seeds Cooperative for $10. Stern explains why she created the image:

This is a redo of an image I made over ten years ago when the incarceration rate had already skyrocketed and the trend has tragically continued as a direct result of harsh and disproportionate racial profiling, targeting and sentencing of communities of color for non-violent drug related behavior. For starters, we must end mass incarceration, the criminalization of undocumented migrants, and the war on drugs. It is incredibly damaging for families, for communities, and our entire society to be putting such a large portion of our population in detention centers for non-violent behavior.

The Sentencing Project has incredibly eye opening data on the current state of affairs.

For anyone interested in learning more about the current state of affairs:
“This House I Live In” is a documentary about the “War on Drugs” in the US which I highly recommend.

For book readers I recommend “Race to Incarcerate” and “The New Jim Crow.”

I purchased a couple of the prints.

by Meredith Stern

by Meredith Stern

Sep 09 2014

Upcoming Event Series: Creative Resistance in a Prison Nation

image-1 (3)

A monthly forum on Chicago-based cultural projects that confront, agitate, and work to dismantle the prison nation.

In the last decade, a growing number of artists, organizations and activists in the Chicago area have created artwork and developed responses to what is now termed a prison nation The U.S. locks up more people than any other nation in the world and exhausts more resources on confinement and punishment each year. One in 99 adults in the US is incarcerated; the financial and social costs to tax payers and communities is staggering. Conservatives, liberals and members of the left have all called for policy changes, yet when violence and poverty rage in Chicago neighborhoods, the common response is a call to lock more people away for longer prison terms.

Creative culture has been at the forefront of changing the public perception about the realities of social segregation, poverty, violence, and incarceration. Chicago-area artists have staged performances and exhibitions, created organizations and developed long-term projects to alter entrenched thinking and unsettle business-as-usual.

What kinds of projects are happening that create a culture of change? Can art decarcerate? Change the law? Liberate communities from violence? Envision and enact new futures?

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